Elder v. Williams

Decision Date21 December 2020
Docket NumberSupreme Court Case No. 19SC1009
Citation477 P.3d 694
Parties Bill ELDER, as Sheriff of El Paso County, Colorado; and El Paso County Sheriff's Office, Petitioners, v. Timothy WILLIAMS, Respondent.
CourtColorado Supreme Court

Attorney for Petitioners: Bryan E. Schmid, Senior Assistant County Attorney, Colorado Springs, Colorado

Attorneys for Respondent: Livelihood Law, LLC, Rachel E. Ellis, Euell B. Thomas, Denver, Colorado

Attorneys for Amicus Curiae Colorado Plaintiff Employment Lawyers Association: Cornish & Dell'Olio, P.C., Ian D. Kalmanowitz, Bradley J. Sherman, Colorado Springs, Colorado

En Banc

JUSTICE GABRIEL delivered the Opinion of the Court.

¶1 This case requires us to address the interplay between two statutes—the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act ("CADA"), section 24-34-405, C.R.S. (2020), and the Colorado Governmental Immunity Act ("CGIA"), section 24-10-106, C.R.S. (2020)—each of which serves substantial public policy objectives. In particular, we must resolve three issues of apparent first impression for this court. First, we must decide whether claims against a governmental entity for compensatory relief under CADA are barred by operation of the CGIA. This, in turn, requires us to determine whether CADA claims for compensatory relief "lie in tort or could lie in tort" for purposes of the CGIA because if they do, then governmental entities would be immune under the CGIA from such claims. Second, we must decide whether subsection 24-34-405(8)(g) of CADA, which allows for compensatory damages against "the state," should be read to include political subdivisions of the state of Colorado. And finally, we must decide whether front pay is compensatory in nature, lies in tort, and is therefore barred by the CGIA.1

¶2 We now conclude that (1) claims for compensatory relief under CADA are not claims for "injuries which lie in tort or could lie in tort" for purposes of the CGIA and therefore public entities are not immune from CADA claims under the CGIA; (2) "the state," as used in subsection 24-34-405(8)(g), includes political subdivisions of the state and thus political subdivisions are not immune from claims for compensatory damages based on intentional unfair or discriminatory employment practices; and (3) front pay is equitable and not compensatory in nature under CADA, and age discrimination and retaliation claims seeking front pay do not lie and could not lie in tort for CGIA purposes.

¶3 Accordingly, we affirm the judgment of the division below.

I. Facts and Procedural History

¶4 Because the matter before us arises from an order on a motion to dismiss Timothy Williams's claims, for purposes here, we take the facts from the allegations of Williams's complaint.

¶5 Williams began working at the El Paso County Sheriff's Office in 2002 and, after multiple promotions over the course of his career, reached the rank of lieutenant. In March 2016, Sheriff Bill Elder ordered a mandatory survey requesting, among other things, retirement eligibility dates from all employees. Williams, who then would have been eligible for full retirement benefits on June 1, 2018, completed this survey and reported that he expected to retire within the next five years.

¶6 Thereafter, Williams was assigned to a team that conducted investigations into alleged misconduct by personnel in his office. Apparently, Sheriff Elder was unhappy with Williams's investigation and the sanctions that Williams recommended, and he confronted Williams in a meeting about it. In this same meeting, Sheriff Elder went on to criticize Williams's job performance and indicated that Williams should be concerned about his job security. Then, several days later, Sheriff Elder held a lengthy lieutenants' meeting, at which he demanded that all employees, including Williams, "step up or step out" and stated, "[I]f you can't cut it then check out." Sheriff Elder allegedly looked at Williams when he made this last statement.

¶7 A few days later, Sheriff Elder demoted Williams to the rank of senior deputy, a significant change in rank, pay, and duties that resulted in substantial adverse retirement benefit consequences for Williams. To avoid these consequences, Williams retired the following day, ultimately to be replaced by a younger and purportedly less qualified employee.

¶8 Based on the foregoing events, Williams filed age discrimination and retaliation charges against the El Paso County Sheriff's Office with the Colorado Civil Rights Division and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (for convenience, we will refer to Sheriff Elder and his office collectively as the "Sheriff's Office").

¶9 While these discrimination charges were pending, the Sheriff's Office received and responded to a Colorado Open Records Act request for certain documents. In its response, the Sheriff's Office stated that Williams had been responsible for the requested documents but when he retired, he had removed items from his office and the documents in question could not be located. Williams claimed that this response, which was publicly available, was false and amounted to a public shaming for Williams's having filed discrimination charges against the Sheriff's Office.

¶10 The Colorado Civil Rights Division ultimately issued a Notice of Right to Sue, and Williams filed a complaint against the Sheriff's Office in the El Paso County District Court, alleging claims of age discrimination and retaliation under CADA, section 24-34-402, C.R.S. (2020). In his complaint, Williams demanded judgment for any and all damages permissible by law, including, as pertinent here, front pay and compensatory damages.

¶11 The Sheriff's Office moved to dismiss, arguing, among other things, that Williams's claims for front pay and compensatory damages under CADA lie in tort and therefore are barred by the CGIA. Specifically, the Sheriff's Office argued that although prior case law from this court had concluded that CADA claims were not subject to the CGIA, this case law was announced before the General Assembly amended CADA to include front pay and compensatory damages and was therefore inapposite. Instead, the Sheriff's Office contended that because front pay and compensatory damages claims arise out of conduct that is either tortious in nature or that constitutes the breach of a duty recognized in tort law, and because such claims seek relief in the form of compensation for injury, these claims lie in tort or could lie in tort for CGIA purposes and are therefore barred. The Sheriff's Office further argued that any claim for compensatory damages associated with Williams's alleged age discrimination claim must be dismissed under the plain language of subsection 24-34-405(3)(g), which limits a plaintiff's recovery for age discrimination claims to equitable relief under CADA and to the relief prescribed by federal law.

¶12 The district court ordered supplemental briefing on whether CADA's more recently available remedies for front pay and compensatory damages lie in tort and thus are barred under the CGIA. Williams responded that (1) front pay is an equitable remedy under both the plain language of subsection 24-34-405(2) and federal case law interpreting Title VII and (2) when reading CADA's remedies provisions as a whole, an award of compensatory damages is permitted under that statute and is not subject to the CGIA. The Sheriff's Office replied that (1) whether front pay is considered equitable relief is not dispositive of whether a claim lies in tort and is thus subject to the CGIA; (2) all claims for compensatory damages lie in tort and are subject to the CGIA; and (3) Williams's compensatory damages and front pay claims alleged elements that are common to multiple intentional torts. Thus, the Sheriff's Office asserted that all of Williams's claims were barred by the CGIA.

¶13 The district court ultimately agreed with Williams and denied the Sheriff's Office's motion to dismiss. In so concluding, the district court observed that front pay under CADA is an equitable remedy and under this court's prior case law, claims for equitable relief are not claims for injuries that lie in tort or could lie in tort and thus are not barred by the CGIA. The court likewise concluded that Williams's claims for compensatory damages for age discrimination and retaliation under CADA were not barred by the CGIA. In the court's view, reading CADA's remedies provisions as a whole, a consistent and sensible reading permits the recovery of such damages against the state and other public entities.

¶14 The Sheriff's Office appealed, and, in a unanimous, published decision, a division of the court of appeals affirmed in part and reversed in part. Williams v. Elder , 2019 COA 172, 479 P.3d 43. As pertinent here, the division agreed that Williams's claims for front pay and for compensatory damages based on retaliation could proceed. Id. at ¶¶ 21–29. The division, however, concluded that under the express language of subsection 24-34-405(3)(g), Williams could not recover compensatory damages in connection with his age discrimination claim. Williams , ¶¶ 12–20, 29.

¶15 The Sheriff's Office petitioned this court for certiorari, and we granted that petition.

II. Analysis

¶16 We begin by setting forth the applicable standards relating to statutory interpretation. We then proceed to discuss the relationship between CADA and the CGIA, ultimately concluding that a claim brought pursuant to CADA does not and could not lie in tort and is therefore not barred by the CGIA. Next, we consider whether the language of subsection 24-34-405(8)(g) evinces a legislative intent to bar, under the CGIA, compensatory damages claims against a political subdivision of the state, and we conclude it does not. Last, we address whether claims for front pay under CADA are compensatory in nature and lie in tort, and are therefore barred by the CGIA. We conclude that they are not and that Williams may therefore pursue his claims for front pay.

A. Applicable Legal Standards

¶17 ...

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